The Unconnected

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I recently saw advertisement for a 16gB flash drive for $8 and I smiled as I thought about how cheap memory had gotten compared to twelve years ago when I bought a 32mB flash drive for $200. It is a nice benefit of Moore’s law, but it also brought a slight shudder as I thought about its provenance. Several years ago, there was a rash of malware transmitted from flash memory embedded in digital picture frames. It was a ham-handed attempt at infecting computers world wide, but it made me concerned that most of our technology comes from China. It also gave me the idea of maintaining an unconnected computer, one that requires no internet connection and would serve as a repository of important information and private thoughts.

The Chinese understand this issue as a national security one, and recently announced the creation of its first homegrown supercomputer. Less noticed was the fact that all the processors were custom silicon using custom instruction sets -without knowledge of these instructions, it would be devilishly hard to create programs to enter, monitor, and transmit information. It is the ultimate in unconnected computer and its appearance should be as dismaying as finding a black monolith pulsating with data in the Serengeti. With custom silicon and architecture and an unknown operating system -likely a custom written and compiled Unix, this computer stands apart.

My son’s favorite show is Star Wars Clone Wars. The loyal and brave clones in this series are doomed because ultimately, they are designed to betray their Jedi masters when they are most vulnerable. The Sith Lord enacts Order 66, which causes the Clones to turn on their Jedi leaders. It makes me wonder, how much of the processing power in government and military hardware is sourced from China, and if our insistence on transparency, openness, and interconnectedness is an exposed Achilles heel. Is my iPhone really mine, or does it serve several competing masters? Will our next Pearl Harbor or 9/11 be all the electricity and cell service turning off with planes and satellites crashing and my Facebook telling me to go quickly to the place where the planes and satellites will be crashing?

The only way to really know your computer is secure is to make your own computer using chips and circuitry of known provenance. For example, if you created a parallel array of G4 processors made in California with graphics processors made in California, and running an OS that you can inspect line by line and compile yourself, you might be safe. Going further, you can go completely off the grid and eschew technology and society, keeping your own counsel and recording your thoughts in Moleskine notebooks with pencils stolen from golf courses.

Plausible? Of course not. What China has done is create the equivalent structure of a walled city in its completely home-brewed computer. It sends a message and how you interpret it is up to you.

Opera Mobile 10.1 Beta on the persistent Nokia n810 tablet

I know it is strange to be reviewing software put out for a tablet computer made in 2007, but the Nokia n810 is an amazing bit of kit that has an incredible degree of stickiness. I had no trouble getting rid of previous gadgets on eBay including my precious Psion series 5mx and netbook (the original), when obsolescence greeted them. The n810 is clad in brush aluminum and has the build qualities one associates with Apple. It runs a tiny variant of Linux, and if you don’t mind taxing your eyes, there are ways of running full blown X11 applications on it just like you can on your Mac.

As I was toying with the idea of parting with this, I did two things. I plugged it into a speakers to play the BBC World service, and got a wonderful earful of the Queen’s English. A moment later, Radio Free Asia Korea is streaming in clear 96kb. The other thing was I discovered Opera Mobile 10.1 in the free app store where open source applications seem to pop up despite the apparent obsolescence of the platform. It is a wonder -it’s touch optimized and allows browsing the full web, but the mobile web is where it sings. The mobile sites of Gizmodo, NYTimes, and others just pop on this browser. The icons are all fat, allowing for finger navigation despite the resistive screen. Scrolling has an iOS Safari like inertia and in full screen, the browser turns the 4 year old tablet into a modern window on the web.

It speaks to this one thing in our disposable lifestyles -with appropriate care and the right software, there is no reason why technology has to be abandoned every two years. If done right, even the 4 year old technology can sing. Apple understands this ultimately adds value to your line when people can count on being able to use their device beyond its shelf life -that is why my iPod Touch 2nd generation can still run most of the games and apps that show up on the App store. Before you toss that plastic Dell laptop in the dustbin of history, try loading Ubuntu Linux on it or Chrome OS when it’s available again (and it will be).

The tech companies that survive and thrive offer a perfect alignment of form, function, hardware, and software, but also have the market awareness to adapt their offerings to what people can actually use in a meaningful way in their lives, and in this aspect, the n810 is a failure because it’s really a geek hobbyists niche toy. It never played nice with Microsoft Exchange Server, and its screen is too small to comfortably read a full web page. Pinch to zoom is not possible with a resistive screen. It offers a front facing camera, but the video calling feature was never allowed to bear fruit. The Skype client is voice only, and the Gizmo app no longer allows new accounts since their acquisition by Google. Even so, the n810 is keeping its value because of the perfection of form and function. The n810 has taken on the status of a beloved shortwave radio and bespoke web reader. I even bought a new battery for it. Do you feel the same about that plastic Dell box from 2006?

Second Life for a Dead Windows Computer

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It was during last years journey from Florida to Iowa via a rented Tour Bus that my mother’s laptop finally died. It was a Compaq Presario V2000 sporting an AMD Turion64 bit processor. It came out in 2006 and had all the bells and whistles at that time -flash card slots, WIFI, DVD burner, and a very nice widescreen LCD. Unfortunately, it ran Windows XP, and my parents who are seniors, just couldn’t deal with all the requests for upgrades and found the virus protection difficult to manage. After a year in their house, the computer which ran well at purchase, was gummed up with spyware and took over 5 minutes to boot up.

When I looked at it, I realized the hard drive had failed -possibly from spinning continuously when the computer was on. As I had a replacement 40g hard drive that I had salvaged from a Sony Vaio that just died within a month past warranty, I swapped it out and reloaded Windows and all the drivers from the rescue disks I purchased from the HP support site. This was quite painful, but after I got everything reloaded, the computer ran, albeit sluggishly. I was about to give it back to my mother when suddenly it began to give me the blue screen of death (BSOD).

I looked into the problem and soon found that this particular computer, having a 64 bit processor, required drivers that were compatible only with Windows Service Pack 2 -when updated to Service Pack 3, it crashed. I scrubbed the hard drive and did a complete new install and switched off the update function. Strangely, Windows kept nagging me to update to Service Pack 3, and I couldn’t keep the requests from popping up. Finally, Windows upgraded itself without asking (I think I had stepped away and not turned down a request for an upgrade). This rendered the computer unusable again.

I decided to take Windows off and convert the laptop to Linux. I researched it a bit, and found that Ubuntu plays nice with a wide variety of laptops and I downloaded the OS Install to a DVD on my trusty Macbook Pro. Loading the OS was pretty straightforward. Getting the WIFI to work was a little tricky until I figured out how to download a system applet that lets Ubuntu use Windows drivers for the Wifi Card.

I also upgraded the memory to 2gigabytes. The computer now runs like a dream. It’s so stable, I use it as the “rumpus” laptop for carrying around the house or work. It does everything my Macbook does with regard to basic functions -Office software, photography, Facebook, Twitter, and email. I downloaded the 64bit beta version of the Flashplayer, and now I can watch Hulu without a problem.

The incredible thing is that this computer is about 3-4 years old and it runs without crashing. I have had no need for virus protection software. I purchased an extended battery and it runs 5 hours without stopping. There is no way I will ever purchase a Windows based product again willingly.

The un-iPhone: A Review of Nokia N810 -an iPhone User’s View

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Moore’s Law, the observation that processor speeds double every few years, has hit the other principle, the law of dimishing returns. Once computers can reliably do the following, list below, any increase in processor speed or other tech spec is frivolous:

1. Connect to the web
2. Get and send email, photos, and video
3. Process text, spreadsheets, and presentations
4. Keep track of schedules and tasks
5. View documents, pictures, and video
6. Communicate by voice and video
7. Play music, movies and television
8. Play games
9. Blog

There is really no great need for the latest processors or gizmos once a device can do the above reliably. To make money, you have to innovate or you sell upgrades of broken software. This is why Apple has triumphed by creating a device that does all of the above with panache in a pocketable package. But in getting there it created compromises (12 things I hate about iPhone), which made me try out the N810.

It was after a great deal of research that I finally broke down and purchased the Nokia N810. I had been complaining about the iPhone and its deficiencies, and even with iPhone 3.0 which came out yesterday. Apple has been determinedly avoiding creating a competitor to its MacBook, iMac, and PowerMac’s. This means keeping everything aside from the making of simple emails, playing songs, and launching apps completely hidden.

The N810 is an internet tablet which in many ways is the un-iPhone. It runs a flavor of Linux designed for ARM processors, and potentially the iPod Touch could run it. It has a physical keyboard. I wrote this review on it using LeafPad, an open source project available for free download. Nokia appears to have built the N810 for geeks, because I see no obvious business use. It only connects via wifi 802.11g, although they offer a Wimax version. But it has several things going for it that trump iPhone: the keyboard, bluetooth keyboard capability, and communications via Skype and Google.

First Impressions
The device out of the box is gorgeous. All brushed aluminum in grays and blues that are dressy and corporate. It has none of the tacky garishness of some of the Windows Mobile phones. The slideout keyboard works nicely and there are just enough buttons.I think iPhone doesn’t have enough -particularly a keyboard. There is a forward facing videocamera for chatting and a popout easel stand -perfect for using with a bluetooth keyboard.

Turning On
This is one dislike -the device requires a bootup but the device behaves like a smartphone in that it quickly spools into standby mode which the battery meter will tell you is good for almost a week. Bootup takes less than a minute. I would much prefer instant on. After some use, I realized that you aren’t meant to turn off the machine after bootup. It goes into a sleep mode and you can keep it in standby for days. A tap on the screen brings it back to life. With average use, I’m getting about 7 hours of battery life. This far exceeds the iPhone, which frankly is under-batteried for the ways that I was using it.

Software
The device needed to be upgraded to the current OS version which I had to do via a Windows computer. Not a big deal, and it enhanced stability.

It comes with a very capable web browser that renders full pages quite well. It has a dedicated zoom rocker switch that lets you adjust to comfort level. Also, there is a dedicated full screen button. It has Flash, which empowers this device for web 2.0. Unfortunately, it is an older Flash and some web sites, including Hulu won’t run, but Youtube and videoclips off NYTimes ran okay, if a bit choppy.

Multitasking is smooth and it has copy paste. Pressing the x cleanly ends the program, unlike Windows Mobile which has muddled way of dealing with multiple processes -namely it doesn’t and Windows Mobile devices get easily gummed up.

It works perfectly as a communicator -it notifies you of incoming text messages via skype, google, and aol and presumably msn via a number of programs. Unfortunately, skype’s client doesn’t have video chat yet.

Email is functional and straightforward. The client that comes with the N810 is spare and straightforward, but has a limited feature set. A more feature rich client, Claws Email is available for free download from Maemo.org.

The un-App Store – the Apps are open source and free. What isn’t available are PIM and Office software -I don’t think anything matches the utility of Documents to Go for the Palm OS. Everyone is waiting for someone to port OpenOffice, but I know it will run very slowly. There are some who have hacked Debian or Ubuntu Linux to run on this device but it slows down when programs meant for laptops and desktops run on what is a smartphone.

I have paired an Apple Bluetooth keyboard to it and it is now a very useful netbook replacement.

Media
It will play movies converted to mpegs or wmv’s. It comes with a one month trial of Rhapsody’s music library which is wonderful. I installed a Mini-SD card which had a few albums from my former Treo. With the iTune’s store offering DRM free MP3’s, getting music onto this device is not too cumbersome. The included headphones have a built in microphone for phone calls which work fine as well.

Rationale
Why did I get this when iPhone did most of the things I needed? It has to do with the things iPhone left out: Bluetooth keyboard, copy-paste, multitasking, and builtin-keyboard. I got the N810 through Amazon -not from the mothership but one of the vendors who had it for $250. With Apple Bluetooth keyboard which is very portable and stable, and usable with my other Apple gear, it is a worthy replacement for the Acer Aspire One which I recently sold to a friend.

Why? The netbook phenomena is a giant failure because it has been hijacked by Windows. With Windows XP, these small laptops are just that -small Windows XP laptops with slow processors. Coupled with Vista, these netbooks are completely useless. Microsoft intends on loading these netbooks with Windows 7 that has been downgraded to run only 3 applications.

Right now, I can compose on a very comfortable keyboard or a usable thumbboard in a pinch with a total cost of $325, with all the communcation capabilities brought by Nokia. Very happy. This entire blog entry has been created on the N810, by the way.

The netbook replacement in action

The netbook replacement in action

Rhapsody on the N810 is pretty cool because you have access to a large number of tracks and radio stations centered around bands. This rental of music scheme is okay, but I don’t think I’ll keep it. Pandora works! It’s slow, but it works fine. Streaming Sting radio, it comes through with FM quality with occasional very short skips probably related to the processor groaning while I type away.

The media player does a fine job with files loaded onto the internal storage. External storage is in the form of Mini-SD cards. I don’t particularly mind as I have all the adapters, but would have preferred regular SD. I don’t plan on watching movies with it, as the iPod is just too easy to use -iTunes to iPhone trumps ripping DVD’s to the correct aspect ratio, then copying to a mini-SD card -it was okay ten years ago to geek away, but in this day, streamlined delivery of content is a given.

I wish they would update the Flash, as Flash 9 doesn’t work on all sites, particularly Hulu. Also, Netflix is run off Silverlight -and I doubt they’ll release a Linux version anytime soon.

The picture shows the minikeyboard opened -this elevates the display perfectly. The easel stand is a wonderful touch. The Apple Bluetooth keyboard is the same chiclet keyboard found on the new Macbooks and is wonderful to type on. It would be great if iPhone would do the same, but we will never ever see this. They want you to buy a Macbook.

Addendum 3/23/2009
After using it as my netbook replacement for a week, I have been only delighted with it. I use the open source program WordPy to update this blog. Google Documents, though a big laggy when it comes to saving and opening, works just fine and is the office solution that this device didn’t come with. The great thing is that I am now typing on a great keyboard and extremely portable.

I have totally gotten into the internet radio, which for now eliminates my desire to pick up a short wave radio. Hundreds of stations from Hong Kong to Zambia, from Lichtenstein to Kuala Lumpur are available.

I also get much better phone calls out via Skype indoors at my hospital over the guest web connection than I do through the AT&T connection which goes through a repeater. I have to figure out how to get my contacts on the thing though -simply taking outlook contacts and trying to get the N810 to recognize them isn’t working.

Addendum 4/17/2009

After a month of use, I am pleased with the portability of the setup. I do find that certain things run slowly -some web pages take a while to load up where in iPhone Safari -it’s pretty blistering fast. Also, typing on some Web 2.0 pages causes strange stutters in the text. It is much easier to live with than the Acer Aspire One primarily because I didn’t need a small Windows XP laptop in my life. This the N810 does everything that iPhone doesn’t do at all very well. The overlapping functional items -mostly I leave to iPhone because I don’t have too much in the way of non-iTunes related media. The whole idea of using the Acer One as a large video iPod really failed because the video output was laggy compared to the sound.

The N810 is a device to fill in the gap between iPhone and a small laptop. It does this function very well.